Babbitt prepares shift in approach to U.S. wildlife

February 17, 1993|By New York Times News Service

In a policy switch intended to head off conflicts over endangered species, Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt is preparing a major shift in the federal government's focus on wildlife protection.

To avert what he calls "national train wrecks" in clashes such as the spotted owl controversy, Mr. Babbitt hopes to avoid resorting to emergency measures to protect suddenly endangered species by moving instead to preventive medicine based on the long-term protection of whole ecosystems and all their inhabitants.

"We need to step back and look at the entire ecosystem and ask, 'Is it possible to intervene before the crisis?' " Mr. Babbitt testified yesterday before the House Natural Resources Committee.

And in an interview last week, he declared his intention to try to devise ecosystem conservation and recovery plans that would stop the decline of species before it becomes necessary to list them as threatened or endangered.

This, he said, might avoid "the downward spiral of listing, and then the long, contentious legal process that is triggered when the Endangered Species Act takes hold."

The rationale of such an approach, which has been advocated by several conservation groups, is that both conservation and business interests can be better served by negotiated settlements that plan the future of an entire ecosystem before any individual species are endangered.

There is more leeway for compromise, according to this view, than when an ecosystem is severely degraded and options for protecting threatened species shrink in number.

If ecosystems are to be the focus of federal conservation policy, Mr. Babbitt said, a national scientific assessment of ecosystem health -- a map, as it were, of the nation's biological diversity -- is required to spot problems before they get out of hand.

To avoid contention and lawsuits resulting from "repeated eleventh-hour listings" of species as endangered, Mr. Babbitt told the House panel yesterday: "We're going to have to manage the Endangered Species Act pro-actively by anticipating the problem, while we still have the flexibility to manage the problem."

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